Transforming Genders

Performing the Kabuki Paradigm of Female-likeness, Bodies Beneath, and Beautiful Boys
  • Katherine Mezur


Throughout the 300-year history of professional kabuki theatre, men have performed both female and male gender roles. In the early seventeenth century, women and men performed in the formative stages of kabuki performance. Beginning with kabuki’s female founder, Izumo no Okuni (act. 1603–1619)—both women and men frequently played different gender roles. With the official government edict in 1629 that prohibited women from performing in public, men, particularly youths, took over the theatrical representations of kabuki’s female gender roles. In these early stages of exclusively male kabuki, performers generally specialized in either female gender roles or male gender roles. The female gender role specialists were called onnagata, and the male gender role specialists were called tachiyaku.1 Over time, onnagata creatively formulated fantastic female-like gender roles constituted from stylized gender acts. Gradually, an ideal fiction of “female-likeness,”2 with its own sensual and visual aesthetics, evolved through generation after generation of onnagata and their artistry, ingenuity, and perseverance.


Gender Role Gender Identity Male Body Role Type Stylization Practice 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 4.
    Jennifer Robertson, “The Shingaku Woman: Straight from the Heart,” Recreating JapaneseWoman, 1600–1945 ed. Gail Lee Bernstein (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991) 106. Robertson details the main discourses on female-likeness for women as prescribed by the bakuf during the Tokugawa period. See also Kaibara Ekken, OnnaDaigak (1672), Women andWisdom of Japan ed. Takaishi Shingoro (1905; London: John Murray, 1979) 33–46. In his widely read primer on female behavior, Kaibara Ekken affirmed that the female sex was linked to inferior and dangerous traits, which had to be controlled and brought to conform to an ideal model of female-likeness.Google Scholar
  2. 8.
    For an explanation of kabuki stylization and the tradition of change of kat (forms) see, James R. Brandon, “Forms in Kabuki Acting,” James R. Brandon, William P. Malm, and Donald H. Shively, Studies in Kabuki: Its Acting, Music, and Historical Contex (1978; Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1979) 120–126.Google Scholar
  3. 9.
    Gary P. Leupp, Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japa (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) 27–57.Google Scholar
  4. 13.
    Onoe Baiko, personal interview, Tokyo, 1992. Most onnagata I interviewed would begin their explanation of onnagata kat (forms) with a description of how onnagata must stay behind and lower than the tachiyaku in order to look small and graceful.Google Scholar
  5. 15.
    A.C. Scott, The Kabuki Theatre of Japa (1955; New York: Collier Books, 1966) 171–172; Fujita Hiroshi, Onnagata no Keiz (Tokyo: Shindokushosha, 1970) 47, 44–54. Fujita deals with the question of whether joy (female performers) could replace onnagata in kabuki. He cites various Japanese scholars’ arguments about the requirements of strength and the skill of transformativity for onnagata performance.Google Scholar
  6. 16.
    Leonard Pronko, Theatre East and Wes (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967) 195.Google Scholar
  7. 17.
    Earle Earnst, The Kabuki Theatr (1954; Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1974) 195.Google Scholar
  8. 19.
    Samuel L. Leiter, trans, and comm., The Art of Kabuki: Famous Plays in Pcrformanc (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979) 258.Google Scholar
  9. 27.
    Peter Stallybass, “Transvestism and the ‘Body Beneath,’ ” Erotic Politics: Desire on the Renaissance Stage ed. Susan Zimmerman (London: Routledge, 1992) 64–83.Google Scholar
  10. 30.
    Judith Butler, GenderTroubl (New York: Routledge, Chapman and Hall, 1989) 136.Google Scholar
  11. 31.
    Judith Butler, BodiesThatMatte (New York: Routledge, 1993) 123–128; Peggy Phelan, Unmarke (New York: Routledge, 1993) 99–104. Butler andGoogle Scholar
  12. 35.
    Jill Dolan, “Geographies of Learning: Theatre Studies, Performance and the ‘Performative,’ ” TheatreJourna 45 (1993): 426.Google Scholar
  13. 40.
    Nakamura Baika III (1907–1991) advised many young onnagata in the Nakamura Utaemon VI line because he was an apprentice under Nakamura Utaemon V and worked closely with Utaemon VI. He died in 1991, the year I observed his teaching.Google Scholar
  14. 46.
    Trinh T. Minh-ha, “Not You/Like You: Post-Colonial Women and the Interlocking Questions of Identity and Difference,” Making Face, Making Soul: Haciendo Caras ed. Gloria Anzaldua (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Foundation, 1990) 374–375. I use this term as one who was inside the kabuki culture as a scholar, but outside as a foreigner and sometimes as a woman. I realize my usage differs from Trinh’s usage, but I feel that my process of cultural positioning is related to her explanation.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Katherine Mezur 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Katherine Mezur

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations